The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni: Book Review

The Palace of Illusions’ is written by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, published in 2008.

The Palace of Illusions’ explores the beautiful premise of mythological retelling, and what better than to understand the epic of Mahabharata through the eyes of Draupadi.

I began the book in an apprehensive way. Mahabharata has been told, a zillion times over, from the most favoured bedtime story to the BR Chopra’s televised magnum opus ‘Mahabharat’. Then, we had many versions of the same story with new characters and better special effects reach our homes through television in the subsequent years.

The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

However, in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s ‘The Palace of Illusions’, Mahabharata revolves around Draupadi, beginning with her birth, chronicling her childhood, marriage and so on. It is not a distant figurative Princess and a haughty queen who is instrumental in bringing upon the worst battle of the times.

The Author questions the edifice of patriarchal storytelling where women were reduced to mere props or extensions for the narrative of the male characters to carry forward. As Draupadi’s character takes centrestage in the positive ambit, Kunti’s character becomes the nemesis.

Draupadi is described as born of the fire with a blue hue. “…a princess afflicted with a skin so dark that people termed it blue was capable of changing history.” She is an unwanted child, an additional boon from the Gods to King Drupad, who had carried the great feat for acquiring a son from the sacred fire, to defeat Drona. Draupadi’s character develops in this dejected and desolate realm. She is born divinely, yet never accepted socially, juxtaposed to her brother who is honored.

The initial discomfiture of Draupadi is described as she didn’t consider herself beautiful, lacking the revered fair skin. She lacks in the defined virtues of womanly skills, and excels in matters of political affairs. The author explores the relationship between the siblings Dhri and Draupadi in great depth. And, this is the only relationship that is given sufficient scope to grow in the book.

The untold love story between Karna and Draupadi is the spine of this retelling. The venom spewed by Draupadi during her ‘swayamvar’ (marriage feat) stays in Karna’s heart. However, Karna’s character had fascinated Draupadi. The look of this man, heroic and humble had churned her heart but sidelined by the prejudiced opinions of Krishna and Dhri.

It is the fluid narrative that breaks down this epic to a human story. Draupadi had been one character, with which I could never associate. As a girl, my heart went out to Kunti for her sacrifices and the tragedy she single handedly faced in her life. However, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni just changed it around for me. The best part about the book is that it brings Kunti down from the pedestal of the over glorified mother. She is as human or as normal a Mother or a Mother-in-law could be. There is angst in her against Draupadi for being the diversion in her sons’ life. She had laid her life to ensure that her sons receive the duly accredited inheritance, yet with Draupadi, there was distraction.

There is an angle to explore Kunti’s motive at keeping her sons away from the influence of a single woman. So, Draupadi’s marital code was important for the future of Pandavas. Had she and Arjun been together as the result of her swayamvar, this would have changed the course of Mahabharata. Kunti could have taken back her words of tying her five sons to one woman but she does not, the author wanders on the objectives that led Kunti in her decisions. In Varanavat, it was Kunti who had hatched the plan to burn the guests (a mother and her five sons) in the palace fire. For this, she was ready to forsake heavens for this sin.

Coming to the title of the book, ‘The Palace of Illusions’, the grandeur created by Pandavas in Indraprastha, in place of the dark forests and ruins of Khandavprastha. “Water. I want water. Everywhere. Fountains and pools, ponds for birds to sport in.” Draupadi desires these aspects for her Palace. Water inside the palace that Kunti would later comment was the harbinger of ill omen. The water and the illusions that would make Duryodhan fall and the final hurt hurled on his ego to initiate the treacherous war. Was it because this Palace of Illusions was built on the death by fire of those living in Khandav forest.

The author makes us understand the depth of the characters and their emotional profoundness through her beautiful prose. There is the attempt to give more flesh to the phase post war that is always conveniently left out.

It is intriguing that the author skips the portions on Dushasan in the revenge saga. Why is this convenient omission, perhaps to lend a more atonement to Draupadi’s character? The fierce Draupadi is contained in the years transpiring the war.

The seeds of Mahabharata were laid years preceding Draupadi’s birth. The vengeance is born in the heart of Drupad and Drona. Drona’s state of abject poverty and his inability to buy milk for his son and his culpability in believing Drupad’s childhood promise. Yet, the blame for the war largely rests on Draupadi and her haughtiness in popular story telling.

This post is a part of #BlogchatterA2Z challenge under Alphabet T 

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